Myanmar’s looming climate crisis has been exacerbated post-coup, with the suspension of several important climate projects and the refocusing of Myanmar’s economy on extractive industries.
Myanmar is facing the threat of a climate crisis. Listed by the Global Climate Risk 2020 as one of the top three countries most affected by climate change from 1999 to 2018, it is the most affected nation in Asia. The country’s population and economy are increasingly exposed to the devastating impact of floods, cyclones, storm surges, droughts, landslides, earthquakes, fires and epidemics. The devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis in 2008 still haunts people in the Irrawaddy Delta, whether it is post-Nargis trauma from the loss of loved ones, or the heightened vulnerability of agricultural livelihoods in cyclone-affected areas.
Myanmar largely missed several opportunities to recapitalise its own assets – the forests – to address its climate crisis. The FAO estimates that 48.3 per cent or about 31,773,000 hectares of Myanmar’s land area is forested. Of this area, 10 per cent (3,192,000 ha) is primary forest, the most biodiverse and carbon-dense form of forest. Successive governments in Myanmar were unable to manage the forests sustainably. In fact, natural resources were overexploited in many ways: logging, illicit trades, and mismanagement and corruption. The FAO reports that between 1990 and 2015, Myanmar lost nearly 15 million ha of forests and other wooded land, an annual average loss of 372,250 ha or 0.95 per cent.
When the National League for Democracy (NLD) government took office in 2016, it started attending to the country’s climate crisis. The national-level Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan (2018-2030) included among its three key pillars one devoted to people and the planet. Under this pillar, the priority on climate change resilience focuses on reducing exposure to disasters and shocks while protecting livelihoods and facilitating low-carbon growth. This latter emphasis recognises that addressing the nation’s infrastructure needs must not come at the expense of future generations. The NLD government also attempted to stop some mining sites and logging activities, and prioritised developing a National Earthquake Preparedness and Response Plan, the first of its kind for the earthquake-prone nation. The plan, finalised in 2020, provided for working with a wide range of stakeholders, and closer coordination between the Union and sub-national governments. The international community also supported Myanmar’s climate-related institution-building.
The NLD government’s plans had a limited chance for implementation, mainly due to the time involved in developing these plans during its term in office. Then came the military coup of 1 February 2021. Important steps taken for Myanmar’s climate resilience have been lost in the ensuing turmoil. Officers involved in climate initiatives and capacity-building joined the civil disobedience movement (CDM), resisting the coup. Many important initiatives disappeared instantly. Several important climate projects were suspended.
The investment outlook for Myanmar has also shifted in the wake of the coup; Western companies holding corporate values of sustainability have left, while those interested in exploiting natural resources may now have incentives to invest further.
The post-coup situation is likely to exacerbate Myanmar’s climate crisis. Faced with increasing economic sanctions, the State Administration Council (SAC) regime has refocused the economy on extractive industries. The environment is also at risk under the SAC’s agriculture policy, especially regarding palm oil. The Tahnintharyi Region is targeted to be the country’s palm oil pot, whose production will enable Myanmar to curb imports of edible oil. This move harks back to similar palm oil projects by previous military regimes in the 1990s, which gave land concessions to companies for planting oil palm. These companies were more interested in logging than planting oil palm, and their exploitation of intact forests caused substantial environmental impacts.
The investment outlook for Myanmar has also shifted in the wake of the coup; Western companies holding corporate values of sustainability have left, while those interested in exploiting natural resources may now have incentives to invest further. The fate and future of the billion-dollar hydropower project (negotiated with China) at Myitsone, which had been suspended in 2011, remains uncertain. There are many rumours about its resumption. Should this actually happen, the project’s recommencement would exacerbate Myanmar’s climate crisis significantly.
Ongoing fighting between junta troops and local defence forces and ethnic armed groups also has environmental costs. Many wildlife sanctuaries are in areas where intense fighting is taking place. Sagaing Region and Kachin State are home to important wildlife sanctuaries, including Hukaung Valley, one of Asia’s important tiger reserves. Some of these sanctuaries were expected to be listed by UNESCO as world heritage sites for their outstanding universal values of large-scale ecological, biophysical processes, but they are now bereft of protection measures against the exploitation of wildlife or for safeguarding the population whose livelihoods rely on the valley.
Internationally, the contest for legitimacy between the SAC and the parallel National Unity Government (NUG) have overshadowed any voice that Myanmar might have on climate issues. The SAC was not invited to the recent climate summit in Glasgow; its delegation was in fact denied entry. The NUG released its Nationally Determined Contributions in July 2021, based on NLD-era commitments, stating that Myanmar aims to increase the total share of renewable energy (solar and wind) to 53.5 per cent (from 2,000 megawatts (MW) to 3070 MW) by 2030, while aiming to decrease the share of coal in energy production by 73.5 per cent (from 7,940 MW to 2,120 MW). However, the NUG’s implementation of these targets will largely depend on political circumstances.
Myanmar must now prepare for extreme vulnerability in sectors most exposed to climate problems: agriculture, public health, water resources, transport, livestock and forestry. To this end, public participation, which the SAC is unable to harness, is crucial. The junta’s further exploitation of Myanmar’s natural resources presents huge consequences for the entire nation: a climate crisis larger than any other crises Myanmar has experienced to date.
Aung Tun is Associate Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.